Trans-nationals should be held responsible for toxic food and products – UN

With chemical poisoning responsible for the deaths of 47,000 people each year, trans-national corporations should be held accountable for human health damage caused by toxic substances contained in food and other everyday products, the UN has said.

While international attention mostly focuses on extreme events such as the Bhopal disaster, there is evidence of serious damage from long term exposure to all-pervasive toxic chemicals, said UN Special Rapporteur on toxic waste Okechukwu Ibeanu.

He said that the victims of poisoning caused by elusive trans-nationals should be able to seek justice in the courts of their home countries, and urged states to bring in relevant legislation.

“There is a proliferation of products and foods containing toxic chemicals. In a globalised world, such products are traded internationally or produced locally by subsidiaries of trans-national companies,” said Mr Ibeanu.

“Many of the individual cases brought to the attention of the Special Rapporteur relating to hazardous chemicals deal with allegations of irresponsible or illegal corporate behaviour. Such behaviour is too often met with impunity.”

“International human rights law compels states to take effective steps to regulate corporate behaviour in relation to hazardous chemicals and holds private companies accountable for any actions taken in breach of such regulations,” he said.

The UN appointed its first Special Rapporteur on toxic waste in 1995, in response to the dumping of toxic materials in the developing world. The independent expert had so far reported on issues such as the Bhopal disaster and the disposal of hazardous electronic waste in Africa.

But in his latest annual report, Mr Ibeanu chose to focus on a “less dramatic, but nevertheless critical issue, namely the impact on human rights of chronic, low-level exposure to hazardous chemicals (including pesticides), many of which are contained in everyday household and food products.”

As the production of chemicals for use in everything from air fresheners to electrical appliances and insecticides shot up from 1m tonnes in 1930 to 400m tonnes today, safety standards in the developing world did not follow suit: the World Health Organisation estimates that 47,000 people die and millions fall ill each year due to poisoning from toxic chemicals like pesticides.

In his latest annual report, the UN Rapporteur pointed to wide ranging scientific evidence of damage to the nervous and immune systems from long-term exposure to a cocktail of chemicals such as dioxins and PCBs, even at low concentrations. He said that the full effects of such exposure are still unknown, and warned in particular of the risk to children and unborn babies.

For more information on the UN’s work on toxic and dangerous products and wastes see here.

The UN Rapporteur’s latest report can be accessed here.

Goska Romanowicz

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